In the third of Peirce’s 1903 Lowell lectures (CP 1.521-39), he gave a ‘sketch’ of phenomenological investigation ‘merely to lead up to Thirdness and to the particular kind and aspect of Thirdness which is the sole object of logical study’ (CP 1.535). Along the way, he showed that ‘Secondness is an essential part of Thirdness though not of Firstness, and Firstness is an essential element of both Secondness and Thirdness’ (530). He also showed that the exemplar of genuine Thirdness is the process of representation (532); and that ‘every genuine triadic relation involves thought or meaning’ (534). In the abstract, it is clear that genuine Thirdness requires a genuine triadic relation. But how is this analytical fact related to the common human experience we call “thought”?
Now in genuine Thirdness, the first, the second, and the third are all three of the nature of thirds, or thought, while in respect to one another they are first, second, and third. The first is thought in its capacity as mere possibility; that is, mere mind capable of thinking, or a mere vague idea. The second is thought playing the role of a Secondness, or event. That is, it is of the general nature of experience or information. The third is thought in its role as governing Secondness. It brings the information into the mind, or determines the idea and gives it body. It is informing thought, or cognition. But take away the psychological or accidental human element, and in this genuine Thirdness we see the operation of a sign.
In order to purify the concept of genuine Thirdness, we ought to drop from it any ‘accidental’ elements that might cling to it because they are associated with the common experience we call “thought” or “cognition.” So let us abstract (or prescind) from that phenomenon the formal essence of genuine Thirdness. When we do this, what we see is ‘the operation of a sign’ (i.e. semiosis). But “sign” is another word which, in common usage, may be associated with elements accidental to genuine Thirdness rather than essential to it. If we wish to find what is really elementary to representation, and thus to genuine Thirdness, perhaps we ought to have a more technical term than “sign” for the first correlate of a genuine triadic relation.
… I must begin the examination of representation by defining representation a little more accurately. In the first place, as to my terminology, I confine the word representation to the operation of a sign or its relation to the object for the interpreter of the representation. The concrete subject that represents I call a sign or a representamen. I use these two words, sign and representamen, differently. By a sign I mean anything which conveys any definite notion of an object in any way, as such conveyers of thought are familiarly known to us. Now I start with this familiar idea and make the best analysis I can of what is essential to a sign, and I define a representamen as being whatever that analysis applies to.
— CP 1.540
Once again, Peirce begins with the familiar concept (“sign”), and tries by analysis to extract (or prescind) what is essential to it by subtracting its ‘accidental human element.’ To distinguish this more precise concept of the ‘subject that represents’ from the more familiar concept of “sign,” Peirce calls it representamen, a term virtually synonymous with ‘sign’ but more analytically exact for logical purposes. Peirce had been using the term in this way for decades – it even appears once in his ‘New List of Categories’ (1867) – but he would soon come to regret this, as he admitted in a letter drafted to Victoria Welby in July 1905:
I use ‘sign’ in the widest sense of the definition. It is a wonderful case of an almost popular use of a very broad word in almost the exact sense of the scientific definiton. … I formerly preferred the word representamen. But there was no need of this horrid long word. … My notion in preferring “representamen” was that it would seem more natural to apply it to representatives in legislatures, to deputies of various kinds, etc. I admit still that it aids the comprehension of the definition to compare it carefully with such cases. But they certainly depart from the definition [of sign given earlier in this letter], in that this requires that the action of the sign as such shall not affect the object represented. A legislative representative is, on the contrary, expected in his functions to improve the condition of this constituents; and any kind of attorney, even if he has no discretion, is expected to affect the condition of his principal. … I thought of a representamen as taking the place of the thing; but a sign is not a substitute.
— Peirce to Welby (SS 193)
After this, with a few exceptions, Peirce abandoned the use of ‘representamen’ as a synonym for ‘sign.’ The continuation of his 1903 Lowell lecture shows that even while using the term, he was aware that this usage had some disadvantages:
… I define a representamen as being whatever that analysis applies to. If therefore I have committed an error in my analysis, part of what I say about signs will be false. For in that case a sign may not be a representamen. The analysis is certainly true of the representamen, since that is all that word means. Even if my analysis is correct, something may happen to be true of all signs, that is of everything that, antecedently to any analysis, we should be willing to regard as conveying a notion of anything, while there might be something which my analysis describes of which the same thing is not true. In particular, all signs convey notions to human minds; but I know no reason why every representamen should do so.
So ‘a sign may not be a representamen,’ and as Peirce said in the ‘Speculative Grammar’ section of his Syllabus, ‘there may be Representamens that are not Signs’ (EP2:273). The pitfalls of polyversity, it seems, are only papered over by inventing technical terms which are more exact and ‘scientific’ than ordinary terms. In most of his semiotic writings, Peirce compromised by pairing the terms ‘sign’ and ‘representamen’ in contexts which make it clear that they are virtually interchangeable, as he did in the Lowell lecture (CP 1.540) quoted above. Here are some more examples taken from his various definitions of the concept:
A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign.
— unidentified fragment, c. 1897.
A sign, or representamen, involves a plural relation, for it may be defined as something in which an element of cognition is so embodied as to convey that cognition from the thought of the deliverer of the sign, in which that cognition was embodied, to the thought of the interpreter of the sign, in which that cognition is to be embodied.
— ‘On the Logic of Quantity’ (MS 16, 1895?) [PM]
Indeed, representation necessarily involves a genuine triad. For it involves a sign, or representamen, of some kind, outward or inward, mediating between an object and an interpreting thought.
— ‘The Logic of Mathematics’ (CP 1.480, 1896)
The principles and analogies of Phenomenology enable us to describe, in a distant way, what the divisions of triadic relations must be. … no part of this work has, as yet, been satisfactorily performed, except in some measure for the most important class of triadic relations, those of signs, or representamens, to their objects and interpretants.
— ‘Nomenclature and Divisions of Triadic Relations’ (EP2:289, CP 2.233)
A Sign is a representamen of which some interpretant is a cognition of a mind. Signs are the only representamens that have been much studied.
— ‘Nomenclature and Divisions of Triadic Relations’ (EP2:291, CP 2.242)
A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object. The triadic relation is genuine, that is its three members are bound together by it in a way that does not consist in any complexus of dyadic relations.… this, and more, is involved in the familiar idea of a Sign; and as the term Representamen is here used, nothing more is implied. A Sign is a Representamen with a mental Interpretant. Possibly there may be Representamens that are not Signs.
— ‘Syllabus’ (EP2:272, CP 2.274, 1903)
All of the above make it clear that the sign, or representamen, is one correlate of a genuine triadic relation. Some later semioticians have chosen to emphasize the triadicity of semiosis by means of a terminological distinction between sign and representamen which is entirely different from Peirce’s. This post-Peircean distinction was then attributed to Peirce, for instance by Winfried Nöth in his Handbook of Semiotics (1990, 42):
Theoretically, Peirce distinguished clearly between the sign, which is the complete triad, and the representamen, which is its first correlate. Terminologically, however, there is an occasional ambiguity because Peirce sometimes also used the less technical term sign instead of representamen…. Once, Peirce even speaks of the ‘sign, or representamen’ …
But as we have seen above, this pairing of the terms as synonymous is the usual practice in Peirce, not the exception. Nöth does not cite even one specific example where Peirce uses the term ‘sign’ to denote ‘the complete triad,’ and none of Peirce’s dozens of definitions of sign actually do this.
There is one passage in the late Peirce which does say that ‘Signs … are triadic’ (CP 6.344, 1909). The ‘triad’ here, however, is not sign-object-interpretant but subject-predicate-copula: a sign is triadic because it ‘denotes a subject, and signifies a form of fact, which latter it brings into connexion with the former.’ The context of this statement sums up Peirce’s late view of thought and its Thirdness as achieving completeness or perfection in the triadic composition of a proposition:
The mode of being of the composition of thought, which is always of the nature of the attribution of a predicate to a subject, is the living intelligence which is the creator of all intelligible reality, as well as of the knowledge of such reality. It is the entelechy, or perfection of being.
So, then, there are these three modes of being: first, the being of a feeling, in itself, unattached to any subject, which is merely an atmospheric possibility, a possibility floating in vacuo, not rational yet capable of rationalization; secondly, there is the being that consists in arbitrary brute action upon other things, not only irrational but anti-rational, since to rationalize it would be to destroy its being; and thirdly, there is living intelligence from which all reality and all power are derived; which is rational necessity and necessitation.
A feeling is what it is, positively, regardless of anything else. Its being is in it alone, and it is a mere potentiality. A brute force, as, for example, an existent particle, on the other hand, is nothing for itself; whatever it is, it is for what it is attracting and what it is repelling: its being is actual, consists in action, is dyadic. That is what I call existence. A reason has its being in bringing other things into connexion with each other; its essence is to compose: it is triadic, and it alone has a real power.
Signs, the only things with which a human being can, without derogation, consent to have any transaction, being a sign himself, are triadic; since a sign denotes a subject, and signifies a form of fact, which latter it brings into connexion with the former.
Here sign is virtually synonymous with proposition, which does incorporate a triad of functional components. Those components had been classified by Peirce in 1903 as sign types (icon, index, rheme etc.), but nothing less than a proposition (or dicisign) is complete enough in itself to have a genuinely triadic internal structure, or to convey information. Just as genuine Thirdness involves Secondness and Firstness, the proposition involves both index and icon. Peirce had expressed this earlier (for instance in ‘New Elements’) by saying that icon and index were ‘degenerate’ relative to the symbol, which in that context is virtually synonymous with proposition. But it is precisely the involvement of iconic and indexical functions that makes a sign informational, and thus constitutes its genuine Thirdness. This enclosure of triadicity within the complete sign as ‘entelechy’ is, we might say, the implicit closure of semiosis.